About this Recording
8.120800 - KITT, Eartha: C'est Si Bon (1952-1954)

Original 1952-1954 Recordings

That highly overused epithet,‘sex kitten’ somehow seems fresh again when it’s applied to Eartha Kitt, whose voice you’re about to hear in twenty splendidly seductive selections.

Not only is there something decidedly feline in the image she’s always presented (Hear that purr! Watch those claws!), but she’s actually played cats at several points in her career, most notably Mehitabel in Shinbone Alley and Catwoman in the TV series of Batman.

As of this writing, she’s 77 years old and still appearing in cabarets and clubs around the world. But this collection of songs was recorded over fifty years ago, when she was still near the start of what has proved to be a very durable career.

None of this seemed likely when she was born Eartha May Kitt into a life of extreme poverty on 26 January 1928 in the town of North, in the state of South Carolina. For many years, Kitt wasn’t really sure of the place or date of her birth until the 1970s when some students at Benedict College finally found the relevant documents.

She was illegitimate and her family were poor sharecroppers who told her that her name was a tribute to the earth, because the harvest had been good in the months just before she was born.

Kitt’s mother was black and her father was mixed white and Cherokee. This made her an almost total outcast in the America of the 1930s, with no race willing to claim her. When her parents broke up and her mother remarried, her stepfather refused to accept her and she went to live with her aunt in Harlem.

Despite poverty so severe that she often existed only on apples, Kitt made her way into the N.Y. School of Performing Arts. At the age of sixteen, she was discovered by the famous choreographer Katherine Dunham who took her under her wing and made her a part of her company.

Soon, Kitt was touring around the world with Dunham’s troupe. When she arrived in Paris in the late 1940s, she decided to stay there and soon carved out a name for herself. In 1950, she became romantically involved with Orson Welles, who cast her as Helen of Troy in his reworking of the Faust legend, called Time Runs. He opened it in Paris, then toured it around Europe.

But Kitt was finally homesick for the U.S.A. She returned to Manhattan in 1951 and hit the cabaret scene, with record-breaking runs at the Blue Angel and the Village Vanguard.

It was while she was there that she was discovered by producer Leonard Sillman. He was casting the fourth in his series of seven legendary Broadway revues called New Faces of … With the date of the year they were performed finishing the title.

Eartha Kitt was to prove the star of New Faces of 1952 when it opened on 16 May. You can hear two of the numbers that made her famous: the charming Bal Petit Bal, which she shared with Robert Clary (later to star in Hogan’s Heroes) and her showstopper,Monotonous, a slinky exercise in sensual ennui,written for her by the popular special-material team of Arthur Siegel and June Carroll (who was Sillman’s sister).

RCA Victor instantly capitalized on her fame, by releasing a series of singles. All of them concentrated on her ‘smoldering’ image, but they cleverly played two angles.

Many of them featured foreign language numbers like African Lullaby (sung in Swahili), Angelitos Negros (sung in Spanish), Uska Dara (sung in Turkish) and Avril au Portugal (sung in French).

But they also included more exotic English language material like Mountain High, Valley Low and the haunting art song Lilac Wine, written by James Shelton.

RCA Victor obviously decided they were going to play up Kitt The Seductress in 1953, because they released more singles as well as her first album. These included such exercises in slinkiness as I Want To Be Evil, Annie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and – most infamously – the first ‘R’ rated Christmas carol, Santa Baby.

The strategy worked and Kitt enjoyed six singles that sold over 600,000 copies each in the years ahead.

She also returned to Broadway in a ‘play with music’ called Mrs Patterson, which enjoyed a 101-performance run starting 1 December 1954. Kitt played the fifteen-year-old Teddy Hicks, a poor black girl who longed to live the elegant life enjoyed by her mother’s employer, the Mrs Patterson of the title.

Although not officially a musical the show featured a half dozen songs written by the distinctive James Shelton. Two of them are featured here: Tea In Chicago and My Daddy Is A Dandy.

Kitt’s career was to continue in a variety of directions, with Broadway shows like Shinbone Alley and Timbuktu,movies like Anna Lucasta and St Louis Blues and appearances on TV shows like Mission Impossible and Batman.

But she never really surpassed the buzz she achieved in those early years of the 1950s. Her outspoken behaviour and strong political stance against the War In Vietnam resulted in her being virtually blacklisted by the entertainment industry until the late 1970s.

She has written three exceptionally candid biographies (Thursday’s Child, Alone With Me and I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten and has appeared on Broadway as recently as 2000, when she earned a Tony nomination for her turn in The Wild Party and 2003 when she replaced Chita Rivera in the revival of Nine.

Still, it’s on these first recordings that the essence of Kitt comes through most clearly. Her voice is a strange mixture of tremulous vibrato on the held notes and silky smooth phrasing during the more legato phrases.

Whether she’s singing in English, French, Spanish,Swahili or Turkish, the message comes through loud and clear.

She sounds naughty, she sounds enticing, she sounds … well, like Eartha Kitt.

Richard Ouzounian

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